I love our country, I love being an American, and I think the United States is a truly beautiful nation. However, I am a firm believer in the separation of church in our state, and the state in our churches. I believe that both should cross each other very rarely.
Now, without a doubt, those of us who are Christian leaders should be praying for the health of our nation. We should be praying for those in power, no matter what party they are. We should give thanks for the people who have positively shaped this country for what is now is – remembering those who stood for “liberty and justice for all” over the past few centuries. We should remember those who serve this country and the people within this country – from our service members to our teachers. Even thanking God through the singing of “America the Beautiful” makes sense to me.
But what is the correct amount of patriotism for us to have in our sanctuaries and embedded in our worship experiences? And when do we set the patriotic fervor aside to hold our nation accountable for its shortcomings?
When I see Jesus, I didn’t see someone who celebrated Rome. He challenged both faith communities and the state. Rome was intimidated by this Jesus; otherwise he wouldn’t have found execution by the Roman state. Sure, I believe Jesus acknowledged our duty to the state when he told us to give to God what is God and Caesar what is Caesar’s. But never at any point in the Gospels or other scripture texts does it indicate that he sung songs to celebrate Rome or celebrated its symbols in any fashion.
On one hand, my faith and call dictate that we should hold the state accountable similar to the ways Jesus held the systems accountable in his day. We should raise up the needs of our country’s people with the passion of the Hebrew prophets. As a spiritual leader, I have a responsibility to explore this perspective with those I teach.
On the other hand, my faith and call mandate that I hold the hearts of those who value our country and its symbols. As pastors, we have the responsibility to value the places where our congregants are – both as individuals and as a community. While every church is different and approaches the patriotic holidays with various amounts of excitement, taking into account their pastoral needs is part of our jobs as clergy. In our churches, our congregants want to hear patriotic songs. They want to see this country’s flag. They want to cherish the state in which we live. As we get to know our congregants we may see that this need is deeply rooted in their souls.
Some of us pastoral leaders do not understand the draw to such patriotism in our worship. I can tell you this: many of those who want the patriotic elements of worship have pure, beautiful hearts and truly see God’s presence interwoven with our country.
But not every faithful Christian and American feels this way. For those of you who are reading this who may wonder why spiritual leaders and others do not want patriotic elements in worship, it’s because we believe our focus is on the God of every nation, not just ours. We believe that the state and its symbols have the potential for becoming another god or distracting us from ours. And we believe that it’s our place to be prophets in this country, making sure to stand up for the “least of these.”
So many of us church leaders wonder each year, how do we handle the balance of being like Jesus who challenged the broken systems AND the caring for the pastoral needs of our fellow Christians who have pure love for this country? How can make sure the only god in worship is our God and that the flag and country still remains “under God”? How do I balance your beliefs and needs with my beliefs and needs?
Within our worship service, could we sing of our love for our country, pray for the needs of our country and world and acknowledge where our country falls short? Could the sermon celebrate our passion for our country while still challenging the Americans in our pews to do justice? Can we love ourselves for where we are today AND continue to strive even more to take care of the widow, orphan and aliens? Can we remember that not everyone is equal and that “liberty and justice for all” is still a dream?
I don’t believe it’s a sin to love our country and state this in front of God. But I do believe its a sin if we love our country more than or at the exclusion of loving God and our neighbors.
I believe there’s a place for all of us in our churches. Let us remember the God of the prophets as we celebrate with joy our pluralistic nation. May we remember that God wants the United States of America to flourish, to be a place where the least of these have a voice and justice. May we remember that our country has its special gifts but also has its weaknesses too. And may we remember that God wants all nations to be a place of justice and peace.